South Africa’s young women are increasingly bearing the brunt of HIV infections, with 1745 new infections among women in their early 20s every week.
In an effort to stem this growing tide of high infection rates, a “highly effective” oral medication to prevent HIV infection will be provided from January to young women at high risk of contracting the virus.
This forms part of a sexual and reproductive health access project launched yesterday by the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute and Unitaid – an international organisation that invests in new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat HIV.
Working closely with the health department, the $10.6 million (about R143 million) project will deliver comprehensive services, including medication known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to 6640 adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 in priority areas of South Africa.
PrEP is a one-pill-daily antiretroviral treatment that can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 70%.
South Africa has the world’s largest HIV treatment programme, but it has not been as successful in preventing new infections.
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Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the reproductive health and HIV institute, said: “New HIV prevention technologies could make a major difference to the trajectory of the HIV epidemic. If we have new tools, even if they are partially effective, we must consider introducing them into the public sector if we want to stop new infections.”
The project will help to fill a gap in the “global evidence base for how real-life PrEP delivery can be carried out in the context of comprehensive health services for adolescent girls and young women”, added Dr Saiqa Mullick, director of implementation science at the reproductive health and HIV institute added. Mullick will lead the project in close collaboration with the health department.
According to project leaders, the three-year project will be integrated into the national health department’s She Conquers campaign, which works with adolescent women and young girls to reduce HIV incidence, genderbased violence, teenage pregnancy, school dropout rates and youth unemployment, with a focus on prioritised districts.
The project will develop, implement and test various strategies to reach the adolescent girls and women who are at high risk of contracting HIV, create demand for and improve linkages to services; and support retention in care and adherence.
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“Unitaid’s longer-term objective is to lay the groundwork for wider adoption of PrEP in high-risk groups,” Lelio Marmora, Unitaid’s executive director said.
“At scale, this project is expected to avert 3000 HIV infections a year and save nearly $20 million, the difference between the cost of PrEP and that of adhering to HIV treatment for a lifetime.”
Adolescent girls and young women are a priority, high-risk population, particularly in east and southern Africa, but few programmes have been implemented for them on a large scale, and many questions remain about how to reach young women to initiate and sustain HIV-prevention options.